Aspiration with nowhere to fly to

I was in Senegal for a few weeks, and was assisted by an able and creative young man. For a while, I wondered why he did not react to my text messages. His French was good. He dressed well, if rather flashily in my Anglophone view. We had a fight when I asked him for receipts and I realised he could not read.

One of the things I was curious about was those people who risk life, lungs and thousands of family dollars to get to Europe. All the news-papers talked about “desperation”. It did not make such easy sense.

You have young Congolese men going to Angola with $5 000 to get on a ship to Brazil —not to find an economic future in one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but to work in Brazil and find their way to France.

In Senegal’s Mbour, a kind of touristy Franco-African village, young men lift weights and run on the beach every day, training to cross the Sahara. They train as if they are planning an international sporting career, with commitment and pain. They talk, and plan and share intelligence. It has become a movement. France is no longer the place to go—it is Italy and Spain. One group says “Barça or die”. They take vows that if they do not get to Barça, they are prepared to die.

Now, none of these young men is starving. Many of them have educated parents: three meals a day. I interviewed one guy who had a chicken business supplying Mbour tourist hotels with eggs.

But he lived with his sister. A 22-year-old man lived with his sister, and had to account to her for his movements. His business was too undercapitalised to grow, so he did not make enough money to strike out on his own.

Every morning he wakes up at 4am to train. He likes traditional tonics and purgatives to remove toxins. He does not drink or smoke. He likes ganja, but once a week—for thinking and meditating. He likes to come to the beach to meditate and pray on his own on Sunday nights. I asked him if he liked the French. He said no. He has contempt for them.

He had a lover, an older French woman in Mbour, but he left her. She was a Jezebel, he said. Women remove your focus. They dissipate your energy. He likes sex when he does not have to ejaculate, and keeps his energy. Every Friday, he fasts. Once, he fasted for a week, drinking only water, baobab juice and traditional medicine.

Once, he made his way to Mali, but ran out of options there. He was vague — some contact person did not materialise.

If you walk through the streets of Dakar or Nairobi or Douala, there they are. Well dressed, in well-selected second-hand clothes. Often religious, often Rastafarian, sometimes they organise around mystical traditional religions—like Mungiki in Kenya. They own nothing and have no prospects. Most have only high-school education or less. They cannot afford to marry or to live in any meaningful way on their own.

If you asked them what they are able to do with the full measure of their will and muscle, they will have no answer. We have seen riots in Cameroon, Ouagadougou and Senegal. In Kenya, millions of them voted for the first time, and were at the centre of the violence, especially in the Rift Valley.

The urge to fight, to kill, to die on a boat on the way to France, is all about becoming a man. If there is an insurmountable humiliation, it is to be a human person with no control over your destiny, to have nothing on which to focus your abilities. Drugs may help, making you dazed and diluted. Your life is focused around dealing with all your pent-up anger.

Your hear about them everywhere, a zealous and often disciplined new tribe of young men living in nations too slow and static to challenge them.

I met a woman in Rwanda who told me she had to sell her major assets to send her sons to the United Kingdom to work as unskilled labourers. Her sons, all in their twenties, all university educated, were beginning to threaten their father with violence. He did not want them to go out at night. This was a year after the genocide—he was terrified for them. He built a house for them in his compound. He threatened them with money and violence. “Stay still.”

About a year ago, in Togo, I spent the night in the home of a polite young soccer player and his widowed mother. His bedroom was full of things that did not work: a dead television on a shelf; a blank old 486 computer on a desk; a little set of pretty coloured pens that had all run out of ink. Everything except the bed was an aspiration that did not function.

In the morning, as I lifted the mattress to tuck the sheets in, I saw a gun, thick and cold, sitting on the boards beneath.

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